Based on: Ephesians 4:1-6
One of Aesop’s fables goes like this. A lion used to prowl around a field in which four oxen used to live. Many times he tried to attack them; but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another, so that whichever way the lion tried to attack he was met by the horns of one of them. At last, however, they started arguing among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four. What is the lesson? United we stand, divided we fall.
Today is Unity Sunday. Is this little story from Aesop’s fables a good illustration of the unity we have here at St. John’s? I think you find some similarities, but also some important differences.
For a time the four oxen in the story have unity, don’t they?They work together for a common goal. But we are not going to focus on how they survived because they stuck together. Instead, take a look at the foundation for their unity. They had a common faith. Each one was convinced in his own mind 1) that their enemy was dangerous, even deadly, and 2) that forming an X with each one facing out was the best way to defend themselves. You could say that they had faith in those two principles and the unity they displayed whenever the lion came around, the way they worked together, was just the natural result of believing the same thing. Right?
So let’s make this general statement regarding unity: True unity, like the unity here at St. John’s, only comes from having a common faith. Maybe that’s a pretty big statement to make based on a little story about four oxen, but I really didn’t get it from the story. That’s what God’s Word says.
Paul says “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit” and then he goes on to describe the basis for our unity. He says, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
The basis for our unity is the one true God. Paul describes our God – he describes the trinity that is within itself perfect unity. This description has three sets of three terms. In the first three he talks about the Holy Spirit – one body, one spirit, one hope. This one Spirit has made us into one body of believers by calling us to one hope, namely the sure hope of an eternity with God in heaven because of Jesus Christ. It is the Holy Spirit who created faith and brought us into this unity with God and with other believers.
Next, Paul talks about God the Son, Jesus Christ – one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Jesus Christ is our one Lord. He became our Lord by living a life without sin for us and dying on the cross for our sin. He purchased us for himself with his own blood. He is our master, our Lord. Before faith in Christ we were disunified, each of us trying to follow our own desires, but now we all follow the same Lord. We have one faith, that is, one set of teachings given to us in Holy Scripture, that we believe. And one baptism as God’s means of bringing us into this unity.
Third, Paul talks about the Father – He is God. He is our heavenly Father. And the last term is a triad in itself – he is over, through and in all. He controls all things for our good and he works through us by living in us.
Like the oxen, and to an even greater degree than the oxen, our unity is based on a knowledge and trust in something that will keep us alive. In fact, the object of our faith moves us from eternal death to eternal life.
Unlike the oxen the thing that draws us together is not some human ideology or common cause. Our unity is not based on our own decision. We didn’t say, “Let’s all believe the same thing so we can be saved.” God is the one who called us to this one hope of eternal life through Christ’s life and death for us.
And our God desires that we have a relationship with him. When he called us by the gospel message and when he came to us in baptism he created a unity between us and him based on the forgiveness of Jesus Christ. When we read, hear, and study God’s Word, God draws us closer to him and we enjoy that unity with him. When we are closer to God we are also closer to each other and the unity is more obvious.
So, in order to strengthen our unity with each other here at St. John’s we focus on our unity with God. Just imagine we are all spiders on one big spider web with God at the center. The closer we are to the center, the closer we are to each other. Or perhaps imagine we are all mountain climbers and as we get closer to that one mountain peak, the closer we get to each other.
The reason we come to church is to hear about how God created unity with us. Our sin, which always separates us from God, was removed when Jesus said, “It is finished.” This all-important gospel truth unites us to God and by uniting us to God it also unites us to each other.
The opposite is also true. Edmund Burke said, “What ever disunites man from God, also disunites man from man.” It’s true that any sin destroys this unity. In particular, when God says one thing in his Word and people believe something else they work against the unity they have with God. How then can we have unity with them when to have unity with them will also work against the unity we have with God.
Go back to the story about the oxen. I said that what they did was based on what they believed and because they all believed the lion was dangerous they worked together. Just imagine if they had disagreed about how dangerous the lion was or how to defend themselves, the lion would have gotten them much sooner.
It would also cause problems for us to try to have unity with someone who doesn’t share the same beliefs. For example, God says that there is “no one who does good, not even one” (Rom 3:12). What if someone believes that people have some good in them and just need encouragement to choose the right path? It will not make sense to that person that we talk about law and gospel, sin and grace. If we try to worship with such a person it would be a superficial unity and would cause confusion for others and harm for their soul.
On the other hand, a true unity in faith produces a true unity in actions, not only as we worship together, but as we interact with each other. Brothers and sisters in Christ who believe the words and promises of God will be moved to express their unity by following Paul’s encouragement, “Live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
We are not oxen. We are children of God who know that we deserve no good thing from God, yet God gives us eternal life through his Son. That common faith moves us to celebrate our unity not only in worship, but in lives lived for him.